Examining the Tier Five Prospects (Royals 2023 “Top 50 Prospects to Watch” Rankings)

I have gotten behind on these posts with the start of Spring Training, as I haven’t written a “Top 50” Tier post since early February. Thus, I am going to abbreviate these posts a little bit in order to ensure that they get done before the start of the Minor League season in April.

Here’s a list of all the “Tier” posts that have been written up thus far.

Let’s carry on to the Tier Five prospects, which is a group of pitching prospects I dubbed as the “fringe starter” types in the Royals system.

Tier Five Rankings

(Rank; Name; Position; Highest Level Played in 2022)

23. Ben Hernandez, RHP, Columbia Fireflies

24. Shane Panzini, RHP, Columbia Fireflies

25. Drew Parrish, LHP, Omaha Storm Chasers

26. Noah Cameron, LHP, Quad Cities River Bandits

27. Steven Cruz, RHP, Wichita Wind Surge (Twins Double-A affiliate)

Can Hernandez and Panzini Make Strides?

Two prospects in this tier who had disappointing years are Hernandez and Panzini, who rated much higher in the 2022 preseason lists. Both prep pitchers hail from cold weather states (Hernandez Illinois; Panzini New Jersey) and pitched the entire season in Low-A Columbia with mixed results.

Hernandez, who was repeating the level after making nine starts in 2021, posted a 5.38 ERA in 23 starts and 77 IP for the Fireflies. Despite being affected by a high BABIP for a second-straight year (.341 in 2022; .353 in Columbia in 2021), he was able to keep the ball on the ground for the most part (49.1 percent groundball rate) and limit the home runs (9.9 percent HR/FB rate).

His approach is mature for a pitcher drafted out of high school, as he relies primarily on a changeup that does a good job of inducing ground balls and minimizing hard contact. He does have trouble generating consistent strikes, as evidenced by his 1.78 K/BB ratio, but he maintained a 20.3 percent K rate in Columbia, which is promising for a pitcher without an elite fastball or velocity.

As for Panzini, he was the lesser-known arm of the Royals’ cadre of prep pitchers drafted in 2021 (the others being Frank Mozzicato and Ben Kudrna). Panzini didn’t really pitch competitively in 2021 after being drafted, so his 17-outing campaign in Columbia was his first exposure to professional competition last year.

Panzini performed as expected for a prep pitcher in his first professional year against Low-A competition. He struck out a decent number of hitters (23.3 percent), but he struggled more with walks (1.74 K/BB ratio) and hard hits allowed. His GB rate was only 35.6 percent in 2022, and he ended up giving an HR/FB rate of 11.7 percent as well. Thus, it’s not a surprise that Panzini posted a 5.00 ERA and 5.56 FIP in 63 IP with the Fireflies.

At 6’3, 220 pounds, the New Jersey prep product throws a four-seamer that can sit in the mid-90s and he pairs that with a slider and changeup in terms of secondary offerings. Here’s an example of Panzini demonstrating solid command with his four-seamer back in August.

If anything, I’m more bullish on Panzini than Hernandez, especially since 2022 was Panzini’s first season in the Minor Leagues (unlike Hernandez who was repeating a level). There’s a lot to like about Panzini’s stuff and delivery, and if he can limit the walks a bit, he could be a sneaky sleeper prospect who could climb up the rankings ladder significantly by mid-season.

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see if the Royals’ pitching development can help both talented, but inconsistent pitchers make some gains in 2023, most likely in High-A (though it wouldn’t be surprising to see Panzini start the year again in Low-A Columbia).

Can We See Parrish and Cameron Raise Their Floor in 2023?

Parrish seemed to be on a trajectory to perhaps make his MLB debut after a solid start in Double-A Northwest Arkansas.

In 10 starts and 55 IP with the Naturals, Parrish not only posted a 2.13 ERA, but he also generated a K rate of 22.3 percent and a K/BB ratio of 3.43, which was a nice continuation of the 3.80 K/BB ratio he produced in 83 IP in Northwest Arkansas in 2021.

Despite the hope for Parrish as he made the transition to Omaha, his time with the Storm Chasers was a different story.

In 17 appearances and 73.2 IP, Parrish posted an ERA of 5.62 and saw his K/BB ratio plummet to 1.16. The home runs also spiked, as his HR/FB rate in Triple-A was 15 percent, over double his mark in Northwest Arkansas. He also benefited from a .249 BABIP, and as a result, his FIP and xFIP look even worse than his ERA at 6.68 and 6.28 respectively.

Due to his rough season, the Royals opted to not protect him from the Rule 5 Draft this winter. While Parrish did not get selected, Royals fans have to wonder what Parrish’s outlook will be with the Royals organization in 2023.

There’s no question that Parrish possesses some solid secondary offerings and pinpoint control. But can he make it to the MLB level with a sub-par fastball (and that is putting it nicely)?

As for Cameron, his profile feels similar even though he is a bit of a bigger pitcher (6’3, 220 pounds) than the diminutive Parrish (5’11, 200 pounds). Cameron statistically looks good and is coming off a pretty sensational split campaign in both Columbia and High-A Quad Cities.

With the Fireflies, Cameron produced a 3.72 ERA in seven outings and 29 IP. That included him posting a 33.6 percent K rate and a K/BB ratio of 4.33.

His transition to Quad Cities proved more of the same, but on an even more impressive basis.

In 9 outings and 31 IP, Cameron not only posted a 3.48 ERA, but he also upped his K rate to 41.4 percent and his K/BB ratio to 7.57. By the end of the season, Cameron joined some pretty elite company in the Minor Leagues when it came to pitchers who had posted a K-BB rate of 30 percent or higher in 2022.

Much like Parrish though, will Cameron’s elite control and command be enough, even if his stuff profiles as only slightly above-average? Parrish was able to get through Double-A with such a profile until hitting a wall in Omaha in 2022.

The Texas League will be Cameron’s first challenge in 2023 to prove that he can follow a different trajectory from Parrish.

Is Steven Cruz a Reliever or a Starter?

One of the pieces the Royals received from Minnesota in the Michael A. Taylor trade was Steven Cruz, a 23-year-old who primarily pitched in Double-A Wichita in 2022.

A Top-30 prospect in the Twins system, Cruz primarily relies on a big four-seamer and a slider with some good break and potential.

With the Wind Surge last year, he was primarily utilized in relief, as he made 46 appearances and pitched 56 innings against Double-A competition. Over that sample, Cruz generated a K rate of 28 percent, but he struggled a bit with his control and command at times. His BB rate was 13.6 percent, and his K/BB ratio was 2.06, which is okay, but not great for a reliever.

Cruz’s profile feels very similar to Carlos Hernandez, who flip-flopped between the rotation and bullpen during his time in the Royals system. Will the Royals perhaps transition Cruz to get some time as a starter in order to stretch him out and increase his value? Or will the Royals continue the course with Cruz and let his four-seamer work over limited-inning stints?

Cruz has gotten some innings this Spring, as he has saved a game and struck out one while allowing one hit and one run in two innings of work in Cactus League play. Therefore, it appears as if he will start the year in the bullpen, most likely in Northwest Arkansas, as that is where he was assigned when he was acquired from Minnesota.

Nonetheless, do not sleep on Cruz’s outlook as a possible starter, or at the very least, as an opener, which the Tampa Bay Rays have frequently employed under manager Kevin Cash.

It would not be surprising to see new Royals manager Matt Quatraro perhaps utilize Cruz in a similar “opener” role at some point in 2023 or 2024.

Photo credit: Alan Jamison/Northwest Arkansas Naturals


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